If you see someone wearing a turban, chances are they are Sikh. However, many people don’t know that. The turban, while a prominent and recognizable symbol, has been inaccurately used as a catch-all costume device in many movies and television shows. If you’re not Sikh, this means you may be confused (or even apprehensive) about what it represents. A survey from the National Sikh Campaign found that 66 percent of Americans have never interacted with a Sikh-American.
Now imagine growing up as a Sikh teenager and trying to fit in. Jaydeep Singh Bhatia tells INTER what that was like. Below are some shots of Jaydeep and his expertly tied turban, then read on to see what he has to say about his faith and how his fashion sense is connected to the turban.
INTER: Tell us a little about yourself, Jaydeep.
Jaydeep: I grew up in Turlock, California. It’s a sleepy, rural agricultural community in central California. I attended California State University, Stanislaus in my hometown, where I studied Political Science and Biology and ran track and cross country. After graduation, I got my MA in Political Science from California State University, Chico.
People are surprised when I tell them this, but Turlock – and the greater Central Valley – actually has a thriving Sikh population. When Punjabi immigration to California really began to take shape in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Punjabi-Sikh farmers found the soil and climate in the Valley similar to Punjab. Over the past three generations, they have laid their roots in the area, both literally and metaphorically. Being from an agricultural community, I am lucky enough to find myself helping serve its needs. I currently serve as an Executive Fellow with the California Department of Food and Agriculture. I work on issues relating to federal agricultural policy and climate smart agricultural practices.
INTER: What does the Sikh turban mean and why do Sikhs wear the turban?
Jaydeep: Throughout history, Sikhs have worn the turban as an external signal of their readiness to protect all people against injustice, regardless of faith, gender, caste or color. Today, a Sikh American who wears a turban signals that he or she is always ready to put him- or herself forward to serve a community’s needs. It also represents our commitment to equality, unity and service – values that are at the heart of the American experience.
INTER: The turban is a prominent, visible symbol. How do people in your life react to it?
Jaydeep: For those who don’t know me, there is apprehension and occasional hostility. For those who do, they seem to look right past it. But I think that’s the point. At the end of the day, my turban is synonymous with my identity. It’s a part of me just as much as any other appendage. My friends realize this. I am lucky enough to have people in my life that respect others based on their character. To them, “I’m just Jay.”
INTER: In the photos, it seems like you are not only expressing your religious identity through the turban, but also your fashion sense. Is that true?
Jaydeep: Yes! “Good” and “bad” turban days are totally a thing. I like to make the joke that turban tutorial videos are my version of makeup tutorial videos. The turban has definitely evolved into a fashion statement. In general, Sikhs are very meticulous about how we tie it, which style we choose to tie in and what colors we pick.
INTER: Tell us a little bit about your faith and how it is a part of your life?
Jaydeep: Sikhism is a monotheistic faith founded in Punjab in the 15th century by Guru Nanak. Although Nanak came from a strict-Brahman family, he found many of the religious and cultural practices of the time unsettling. As his spiritually developed, he fought for equal rights for women, criticized India’s cruel caste system, and preached religious tolerance. Like other faiths, Sikhism evolved with time. But through its history, basic tenets of equality, service and fearlessness in the face of adversity remained constant. For me, those principles serve as guidance for life. They answer challenging questions. And most importantly, I can refer back to the astonishingly progressive precedents established in our faith.
INTER: Growing up and now in your professional life, has your relationship to your faith and the turban changed?
Jaydeep: Definitely so. I didn’t really come to appreciate my turban and its significance until recently. In high school, I don’t think I was introspective enough to understand its significance. In college, I had no real understanding of Sikh history or the greater minority experience in the United States. It wasn’t until I spent a summer studying Punjabi in India when I finally understood the importance of this gift. When you’re a kid, it’s hard to take pride in something that so starkly contrasts with the culture that surrounds you. This is especially true in American junior highs and high schools. As a result, kids (I am guilty of this myself) subdue their identity to blend in with everyone else.
INTER: What has your experience been wearing the turban in the U.S.?
Jaydeep: It’s generally some combination of confusion, trepidation and fascination. But to be blunt, after 9/11 it was rough. You heard the horror stories of Sikhs being gunned down because of their turban. People were afraid to go outside, send their kids to school or even take a stroll around the neighborhood. The fact remains that most Americans have never seen a Sikh. According to research by the National Sikh Campaign, 66 percent of Americans say they have never interacted with a Sikh-American. As a result, I am often confused for being Muslim.
Regrettably, misconceptions of turbans have warped this sacred religious symbol – akin to a Jewish kippah or Catholic nun’s habit – into an article of fear and intolerance. Despite social stigma, we continue to wear turbans with pride, knowing that the meaning behind them is truly a representation of the values at the heart of the American ethos. Actually, We Are Sikhs is a current media campaign to help demystify the turban and Sikhism.
I’m a firm believer that the overwhelming majority of people I meet who inquire about my faith are genuinely kind, empathetic and well-intentioned. Wearing a turban in the U.S. presents a powerful opportunity to teach, learn and love.
INTER: What’s the weirdest thing anyone has ever asked you about your turban?
Jaydeep: It’s not necessarily weird, but people always ask if the colors mean anything. I remember once someone asked me if I match colors based on my mood. Also, when I was younger, people would ask “what is under there?” Much to their disappointment, it’s just hair.
If I could tell one thing to people interested in learning about Sikhism or the turban, it is to just ask. We’re always open to conversation. Like I said earlier, being a Sikh is about learning and helping others learn. In the Sikh tradition, there is a concept of “vand chhako.” It’s the idea that we should share with our fellow humans. Not just food or services, but knowledge as well.
If you want to know more about the Sikh experience check out the We Are Sikhs campaign.